Generally speaking, all U.S. citizens have various rights to privacy. This includes the right to not have their homes or belongings searched by the police unless proper procedures are followed. Part of these procedures include the police obtaining a “search warrant” before they enter a person’s home for the purpose of searching it in connection with a criminal investigation.

A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that gives police officers the right to search a specific place for specific objects or materials for the purposes of a criminal investigation. This often includes areas like a person’s home, apartment, or other areas. 

In order to have a search warrant issued, the officer requesting it must show that “probable cause” exists. That is, there must be some basis of belief that there is evidence in connection with a crime on the property or premises.

What is the Fourth Amendment?

As mentioned, U.S. citizens have various protections and legal rights. Many of these are provided through the U.S. Constitution. For instance, the 4th Amendment to the U.S.Constitution guarantees to all citizens the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of a person and/or property. 

While exceptions to the general rule exist, the 4th Amendment requires that police first obtain a valid search warrant to conduct a search and/or seizure of your person and property. Without such a warrant, the police may be committing a violation of the person’s rights. Another common form of warrant is an arrest warrant, which gives the police the authority to enter a person’s home for the purpose of arresting person listed specifically in the warrant.

What Does “Probable Cause” Mean?

Probable cause is a legal standard used in criminal investigation. It refers to situations where the officer has possession of facts within their knowledge that provide a reasonable belief that a criminal offense has been committed or is about to take place. 

For instance, if the police receive a tip from several informants that illegal drugs are being stored in a house, it may be considered probable cause to believe that drug trafficking or drug use is occurring at that place. 

Does an Officer Need a Search Warrant to Search Me?

There are specific instances where a police officer can legally search you or your property without first securing a warrant. These are known as “searches made without a warrant”, or “warrantless searches.” Some situations where warrantless searches are allowed may include:

  • Consent Search: If a person voluntarily agrees to let a police officer conduct a search, the officer generally does not need a warrant. However, a person has the right to refuse to give consent and may also revoke consent at any point during the search. Consent for a search must be given voluntary and not the result of police coercion;
  • Search Made in Connection with Arrest: If you are arrested, a police officer can search you and the area in your immediate control without a search warrant. “Immediate control” typically means within the area marked out by your wingspan (the area marked off by your outstretched arms;
  • Automobile Search: If a police officer has a valid reason to pull you over while you are driving, the officer has the right to search your car without a search warrant. However, the officer must also have probable cause to believe the car has illegal contraband or evidence of a crime;
  • Plain View Doctrine: Police officers do not need a search warrant to seize illegal items or evidence that are in plain view. Three requirements must be satisfied:
    • The officer must lawfully be present at the place where the evidence can be viewed in plain sight;
    • The officer has a lawful right of access to the object or item; and
    • It is immediately apparent that the object is the fruit of a crime or involved in a crime.

When are Search Warrants Illegal?

There are circumstances where a search warrant is invalid or actually illegal. As a result, if a search occurs based on the use of the illegal warrant, the search will be typically be deemed unconstitutional. A search warrant may be considered illegal for the following reasons:

  • The search warrant was obtained without the proper probable cause; and
  • The search warrant does not state or list with specificity the time, place, and items to be searched.

If the search warrant is considered illegal, then the evidence gathered from the search warrant are often thrown out and would not be able to be used against the defendant during trial or be used to charge him with a crime. 

What If I Believe My Rights were Violated in Connection with a Police Search?

If you believe that your rights were violated in connection with a police search, there may be several impacts on any criminal proceedings that follow. First, if the police obtained evidence without a warrant, or if the warrant was illegal, then the evidence will likely be “excluded” from court. This means that the items seized cannot be used as evidence in a criminal court of law against you. 

Second, if you believe that your privacy rights were violated, and you suffered losses or harm as a result of the police violation, it can sometimes be possible to sue the police for the violation. This however is a complex legal situation and generally requires the assistance of  a lawyer. However, your rights are important, and an attorney can help ensure you receive justice if your constitutional rights were violated.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Have Any Issues Regarding Search Warrants?

Illegal searches can affect a criminal case greatly. If you’re facing any such issues, a qualified criminal defense attorney will be able to determine whether the police followed the proper procedure in conducting a search. 

The attorney will also be able to determine whether any of your constitutional rights were violated. If your attorney successfully argues that your 4th Amendment rights were violated, evidence uncovered during the unlawful search will be deemed inadmissible in court.